Growing up playing basketball, I had lots teammates, all of whom were very different. Sensitive players. Coach’s pets. Troubled prodigals and hot shots. And then some that should not have made the team but wore their jerseys on game days with more gratitude than all the rest (think Landry from Friday Night Lights). I think that’s one of the beautiful things about sports: there’s a diversity of personalities and temperaments. It makes for some great memories at least. Likewise, I’ve had a lot of coaches–all of which have also been very different. Each one had their own strategy.
In retrospect, I’ve found that almost every coach can be characterized as either the rigid disciplinarian–“I am the law!” (Norman Dale from Hoosiers)–or a “player’s coach.” I’ve had both. I remember trashcans being rolled into the gym before practice, which we knew wasn’t a good sign. In fact, it was the worst possible sign: we were about to have to run so much that it was very likely someone will vomit their school lunch (fried chicken sandwich, mashed potatoes and green beans, the worst!)–the wrath of the disciplinarian was almost too much. One coach in particular, who I actually admired and respected, scared me to the point that going into his office to ask even the most minute questions terrified me. I thought, what if he gets mad at me? What if he thinks I’m a poor listener, and therefore, a bad player? There goes my shot at starting this year….etc, etc. Playing for these rigid disciplinarian types wasn’t all that enjoyable, to say the least, especially for an anxious teenager like I was. Fear really set in on the court, though. One turnover or missed layup could cost you–playing time for sure, he’d probably call you out in front of everyone and maybe even not make eye-contact the next day. The dominant nit-picking outweighed any enjoyment or freedom to be had on the court, no room for individuality. It was in those moments when basketball simply stopped being fun. I remember playing pick-up games after practice with friends, no coach, no nit-picking, and I just played. My teammates would ask, “why don’t you play like that during practice, or during the games? You play like a different player out here with us.”
My sophomore year of high school, I played for a “player’s coach.” He would scrimmage with us and laugh with us. He would ask us about our lives off the court–which was shocking to my teammates and I. On drives to away games, coach and I hardly ever talked about basketball. We talked about family, classes, movies, etc. This was foreign to me. Before the first game of the season, my nerves were shot. Coach called me into the locker room alone before the game (perceiving I was anxious) and told me, “You are my point guard, and no matter how you play tonight, good or bad, you’re still my point guard.” Playing for this coach was a whole different ball game, pun intended. On the court, making a mistake never even entered my mind. It didn’t matter in the same way. Turnovers, winning, fundamentals, etc.–nah, I just played–and it was the only way for me to just play.
The law was very much a vital part of both coach’s strategies–for every failed attempt to run a play correctly resulted in the agony of running suicides. The main difference–which made all the difference–was that the ruthless coach didn’t have a speck of grace within his coaching framework. The second coach’s approach to coaching also involved the law. “Do this and you’ll win”(or not and have to run suicides) was very much the nature of his game too. But he didn’t stop there. It was clear–by way of intentional conversations about our lives off the court and his whimsical attitude toward the coaching basketball in general–life will go on if you screw up.
The irony of it all is that when I trusted coach–that his approval of me was wholly separate from how I performed on the court–I played my heart out. In fact, oftentimes I felt as if I’d run through a brick wall for coach, out of sheer gratitude. Perhaps God is more whimsical than we’re inclined to believe. After all, eating and talking with sinners and justifying the ungodly–that’s about as whimsical as it gets.